For the past three weeks I’ve been desperately hoping for a gruesome murder or a juicy kidnapping or even just a plain old case of political bribery because . . . I have jury duty! Yes, for the first time in my life I have been called to lend my brains and deductive powers to help out my country, and I couldn’t be more excited. Never have I felt closer to the Founding Fathers than I did when I climbed out of bed at 7 a.m. to report to the courthouse, although I’m sure the F.F.’s wouldn’t have written it into the Constitution if they had any idea it would end up starting so early.
My lawyer always says that juries are composed of people who are too stupid to get out of jury duty. Well, not me. Believe it or not, I had never been called. I’d been registered to vote for decades and I’ve had a driver’s license since the days of the Ford Falcon, but I had never received a jury summons. I felt I was being shunned. And now, out of the blue, here it was!
Me and my fellow jurors showed up on time at the Judicial Center (my mother was on the committee to pick the mural in the lobby, that’s how long I’ve been around), feeling a patriotic buzz and bringing along something to read, as the instructions strongly suggested. I saw a lot of People Magazines, the J. Crew catalog, Monster Truck Monthly, several tomes of Biblical prophecy, and so many Stephen King novels that it makes you realize that he-a fellow Sarasotan, by the way- must be the major financial beneficiary of our jury system, along with whoever services the vending machines.
I looked around. My fellow jurors-to-be were overwhelmingly white, middle class, and proper. I kept watching the criminals out in the corridor and they seemed much more fun-the three-day stubble, the earrings, the tattoos, the early morning beer buzz. And that was just the women. They also had a group picture of all the Sarasota judges, and I was amazed at how many I’d crossed paths with over the years. They were a surprisingly mild-mannered looking group of people, but looks can be deceiving, as we shall see.
Anyway, you go into a big waiting room and wait. Here’s my journal for the morning, to give you the flavor of the experience.
9:50 . Help! Been sitting here for 45 minutes. The chairs are unbearable. Little plastic things. They should at least give you a recliner and fruit juice, like when you’re getting chemo.
10:10 . They show you a movie about how to be a juror. One rule: Don’t do any investigating on your own. Don’t visit the crime scene. Don’t interview witnesses. What a great idea, I thought. I’ll have to remember that.
10:30 . Don’t wear shorts! They make you go home and change.
11:00 . Desperate for something to do. Pilates maybe. I sure wish they had CNN.
11:15 . They have CNN! It’s hidden in a little room. They also have Scene Magazine. I took a copy and read it cover to cover. Have a feeling this is the first time this has ever happened to Scene Magazine. If you think I was bored before .
11:30 . Is that Les McCurdy from the Comedy Club? Sure hope I get on his jury. The deliberations would be a hoot.
11:40 . Discovered a little place way in back where you can lie on the floor and nap.
11:45 . Whoops! It turns out you’re not allowed to lie on the floor and nap.
12:00 . Lunch break.
My journal ends here. But my jury experience didn’t. In fact, when I got back from lunch (the snack bar downstairs, and it’s not bad) it really started to get interesting. First, we just sat there like before. Every once in a while this lady would come in and call a bunch of names and they’d file off, never to be seen again. Finally there were just a handful of us left. And then, suddenly, we were called. We filed into a large courtroom. I headed immediately for the jury box but it turned out that they wanted you to sit in the audience section. There, staring at us, were two tables full of lawyers and a very crafty-looking judge.
The first thing the judge did was tell us this was a DUI case, and then he introduced the defendant. One look and I knew she was guilty. You could just tell. Then the judge got very nitpicky and asked us if we knew any of a long list of police officers who were involved. Two lists, actually. One from the crime scene and another from the jail. Boy, I couldn’t wait for the trial to start. She must have been a wild woman that night.
Since this was a DUI case, if anybody in the jury pool had ever been affected by a drunk driving accident they had to raise their hand and talk about it. This led to a riveting series of stories of brothers, children, parents, etc., who had met their fate in heartbreaking ways on the highway. Then, somehow, the tables got turned and the people who got arrested for drunken driving-or even pulled over-had to talk about it. It became like one of those revival meetings where you confess your sins. I looked at Little Miss Guilty. She was really starting to sweat. Nobody likes a drunk driver, not even other drunk drivers.
By this time we had been in there for hours and we had been asked over and over if there was any possible conflict of interest between us and anybody involved. This went on far too long in my opinion. Until-
Somebody noticed, via the questionnaires we filled out, that one of the women in the juror pool was a poodle groomer by trade. Well, it seems that one of the defense attorneys was also a poodle groomer- part time, of course-and the judge wanted to make sure that the two of them didn’t know each other from poodle grooming circles. So he made the attorney in question, an attractive young blond woman in a robin’s-egg-blue dress, stand up.
The poodle groomer scrutinized her for the longest time. "No, I’ve never seen her before," the poodle groomer finally said. We all heaved a sigh of relief. "But I think I recognize her client from AA meetings."
All four lawyers jumped up and ran to the bench, while we were all going, "What did she say?" The judge, shaking his head in disbelief, declared the jury impanelment the equivalent of a mistrial. Then we were dismissed.
Driving home, I reflected on what I’d been through. A lesson in democracy and our judicial system, to be sure, but even more important, I’d discovered a new Sarasota archetype. New York has its "actor/model/waiter," Los Angeles has its "screenwriter/valet parker" and Sarasota-well, we have our "poodle groomer/criminal lawyer." Tell that to the judge.